I run a tenant hotline where I have advised over 28,000 clients since 1996. There is no one religion, race, or socioeconomic background that describes all my clients. The only common thread is that they are all tenants.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, this will eventually be the same for you, whatever your own background. Non-Hispanic whites comprise only 63% of the overall population, and it is expected that whites in the U.S. will fall under 50% of the total population by 2043. Sooner rather than later, lawyers will have to start adjusting their client relations to adjust to these increasingly changing demographics. Here’s what you need to start doing to get it right.
Research Cultural Norms
If you know you are meeting a new client whose background is new to you, check online to see if there are any tips or taboos. This is especially true if you are meeting a client for lunch or dinner and you are asked to pick the restaurant. There may be dietary restrictions you had not considered.
Additionally, make a note of differing social norms. Before I worked with my first Somali client, I was told that because I am a man, it would not be appropriate for me to shake hands with a woman who is a practicing Muslim.
I researched this before the meeting to determine the appropriate course of action to take. I decided when I met the client to shake hands only if the client offered hers first. I have followed that rule since that meeting. This simple recognition of a different custom puts clients a little more at ease when I first meet them.
Perceptions of Fair Justice Are Not Uniform
In the mid-1990s, a client was suing her landlord for the return of her security deposit. I knew from her pronounced accent and her last name that she was a recent immigrant from Russia. She also lived in a community with a dense concentration of Russian immigrants.
I was preparing her for small claims court where she was going to represent herself pro se. I felt confident she would be ready. At the end of our meeting, I recapped the major points and felt she had a good grasp of what was going to happen in court.
As she packed up her documents, she asked, “So, if I go to court and win, I will get back my deposit?”
“Yes, if you win, you’ll have a judgment against your landlord for your deposit plus the filing fee,” I answered, standing up and holding the door open for her to leave.
“And if I lose, I will go to jail,” she added.
“If I lose, I will go to jail,” she restated. “How long will I be in jail for if I lose?”
She was serious. She believed that if she lost a small claims court case where she was the plaintiff, she would end up in jail. My client did not know about the key distinction between civil and criminal court. We sat back down, and it took another half hour for me to convince her jail was not a possibility. I actually showed her my diploma to help convince her I knew what I was talking about. Finally, I told her she could go a day early and watch other cases to see that nobody was being taken away to jail.
She ended up winning her case and collecting her deposit from her landlord. I was happy for her, of course, but I probably learned more from her than she did from me.
Explain What Being a Lawyer Means
A client new to the United States may not have worked with a lawyer before, and they may not know anyone who has. An early explanation of how attorney-client confidentiality works can be a great tool for easing your client’s tension. Although I represent clients pro bono, an early conversation about fees is also essential. Try to make your fee structure as simple and transparent as possible (which is pretty good advice for any client, regardless of their race, religion, or other characteristics).
Whenever I advise a client, I always make a point to start with a fairly oversimplified version of what I do and then layer on more detail. Some clients are incredibly sophisticated and knowledgeable when I first encounter them, while others are not. I start with the assumption that they are not.
My default for meeting clients from a culture or country I haven’t encountered is that the more formal I appear, the better. Lawyers do not have official uniforms. In my daily work, I can generally get away with business casual, because most of my work is over the phone. When meeting with clients, I present a more formal appearance as a sign of respect and to help indicate my role.
To maintain a professional appearance in your office, have your diploma where your clients can see it. Even a simple lawyer’s notepad can have a visual effect. These two items let your client know you are a professional that can be trusted.
Another prop that is almost certain to impress a client is one that few lawyers still rely on: bookshelves filled with law books. Even though I rarely use them, my office has massive shelves filled with law books. It is remarkable how many clients stare at them. I have no doubt it adds credibility—especially for an initial client meeting.
Prepare to Be Responsive and Open
Finally, present yourself openly enough that the client feels comfortable asking any questions, whether it is at the beginning of a meeting or the end. This open-ended “feel free to ask me anything” question can help alleviate any culturally-based fears you may not have caught. If you have any concerns at the end of the meeting, ask the client to restate what will happen next or what they should expect.
Originally published 2015-01-22. Republished 2016-08-26.